Pilot Mountain

by Carl Strang

On the way to visit my brother and his family in eastern North Carolina for Christmas, I made a stop at Pilot Mountain State Park in the western part of that state. Pilot Mountain is an isolated peak that rises 1500 feet above the surrounding terrain (against only 2 miles’ diameter at the base), and its striking profile is visible from miles away in all directions. My route takes me right past it, and a quick entry is available from that interstate highway.

There are two high points, and you can drive to the top of the lower of those.

This view from the top gives a sense of Pilot Mountain’s dramatic rise.

The sides of this quartzite-cored peak are forested. White, red and chestnut oaks were the dominant trees in the part of the forest I explored.

A nice network of trails wraps around the park.

As a biologist, I was especially interested in the wildlife.

The deer and the gray squirrels looked small as compared to those in northern Illinois. This probably is a latitude effect rather than a peculiarity of the park.

My eyes scanned the trail from time to time, and I was pleased to see some bobcat tracks, but those were dwarfed by a few footprints that had been made by something much larger.

This was the clearest example. At 3-4 inches in diameter, with a circular overall outline and lacking toenail marks, it was close to mountain lion tracks I have seen out West.

Here is an example from Big Bend National Park, Texas.

I passed on my observation to the park staff. A little internet searching revealed that the presence of mountain lions in western North Carolina is debated. I believe my identification is correct, but this does not mean that there is a resident population with Pilot Mountain in a lion’s home range. Our experience in the Midwest is that mountain lions have been wandering outward from the Black Hills, several states away. One was killed in Chicago a few years ago. These cats, though big, are wary and capable of staying out of sight. I would not be surprised at all if eventually it is established that the mountainous region of western North Carolina and surrounding states harbors a resident population of this large predator.

 

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